My story begins with a kidnapping. This was back in another time, in the year 1837, and the child they took from my family must have been around seven years old, though they tell me that he was small for his age. From what I know, from what my relatives can remember and have told me, the boy was taken from Linares, Nuevo León. He was playing with some other children at the fair; they were chasing one another around the bandstand and booths when their mothers first screamed out to them. But already it was too late. The Indians were attacking and killing the fathers and mothers. They took the children on their horses and rode to the north. The Mexican soldiers chased them through the night, gaining on them, but by dawn the Indians had crossed the river into what a year earlier had become another country. There they lowered one child to the ground before riding off farther into Texas with the rest. No one knows why they left behind the one child—maybe to slow down the soldiers? What we do know is that the boy they left was my great-great-grandfather.
This, more or less, is how I recounted my family’s story to the young receptionist at the Palacio Municipal, in Linares, the one place I figured might have some clues as to what had really happened back then. The year was 2002, and I was beginning my research for a novel. It would be based partly on this kidnapping, one of the first stories my Tío Nico, my father’s youngest brother, had told me, when I was maybe five or six. According to my tío, our family was actually from the state of San Luis Potosí, just south of Nuevo León, but my great-great-grandfather had been visiting Linares with his parents when the Indians attacked. A family of early settlers living near present-day Hidalgo, where the kidnappers had crossed into Texas, rescued him and, when it was clear he had no one to go back to, raised him but allowed him to keep his last name. My great-great-grandfather and the Casares name began anew on this side of the river. As far as I know, I was the first descendant to return to the small city where my great-great-grandfather’s kidnapping had taken place 165 years earlier.
Because no one in my family had found a written account of this particular event and so many of the details had been forgotten, there was some dispute as to whether the story was true or simply legend. Tío Nico, who is known for his stories, liked to tell this one in epic terms, adding a touch of predestination to our forefather’s being carried away by original inhabitants of the Americas and left in a new country, which was also an old country, since it had been part of Mexico before the Texas Revolution and, later, the U.S.-Mexican War, a conflict that had stripped many early settlers of their property and rights, including my tío’s generation along the border. My father, on the other hand, was pretty sure his little brother was making the whole thing up. Their ongoing quarrel didn’t matter so much to me—I was writing a book of fiction—but I was curious how much of this story might be based on real events. So late one afternoon I’d walked across the bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros, caught a bus to Monterrey, and there, after a long wait, boarded the overnight bus that delivered me to Linares.
I remember the receptionist had pink braces, and her upper lip would bulge when she caressed the wires with her tongue. As I was telling her my story in Spanish, I heard what sounded like a short gasp and noticed her eyes widen, as if the kidnapping had happened only this morning and there was still time to do something. Then she reached for her rotary phone and the ledger she had asked me to sign earlier.
She dialed upstairs to her supervisor. Dating back to the late 1800’s, the Palacio Municipal is a historic monument, its Doric columns a relic of the country’s colonial past, and its occupants endure without the modern convenience of air-conditioning, instead leaving the French doors agape to allow the occasional breeze. The two-story administration building stands near the cathedral, and as government buildings and churches in colonial Mexican cities customarily face the main plaza, the Palacio and the church face the Plaza Principal de Linares. With most of the doors throughout the Palacio open, we could hear our call ringing in the office above us. The receptionist gazed at the ornate design on the ceiling, moving her eyes from one corner of the molding to another, as if she might be able to see how close the person above her was to answering. When he did, it was only after chitchat and answering a question he had about some document that needed to be typed that she was able to explain the purpose of her call: a gentleman is here from the United States, and he wants to speak to the archivist.
“His name is Oscar Casares,” she said, reading the name as I had written it on her ledger.
“KAH-sa-rez,” I corrected her, stressing the first a, as my family always did. She had said it “Ka-SAH-rez,” with a stress so slight it might have gone unnoticed by someone else. The difference is confusing, I realize. But however subtle, the fact is that “Ka-SAH-rez,” as she had pronounced it, is another family’s name.
She glanced down at the ledger and nodded, though I sensed she was agreeing not with me but with something her supervisor had said.
Then she covered the phone with one hand and asked if the archivist was expecting me. Not exactly, I told her. It had occurred to me only that morning that I should have made arrangements and not simply arrived on an overnight bus. I gathered from